LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Education has the potential to be an equalizer in society, an outlet in which all students are presented with opportunities to improve their futures. As the achievement gap widens between those from affluent families and those from poverty, the aspect of the equalizer diminishes.
Kevin Howe, a non-certified first grade teacher in Louisville, Ky. began his teaching career working with adults and teaching them basic skills.
“I decided that I wanted to work with kids because if I could teach people how to read and write when they’re five rather than when they’re 55, they could have a life that’s functional,” said Howe.
Howe is working toward his Master’s degree in art and teaching at the University of Louisville and will be certified in December. Currently, Howe is teaching at Engelhard Elementary School, where in his first grade class of approximately 20 students, four live in homeless shelters, two live unsheltered, and six have lived in the United States for less than four months.
Engelhard Elementary exists in a high-crime area, where overall, roughly 10 percent of students in attendance are registered as homeless. To help provide structure in the lives of each student, Engelhard requires uniforms and provides breakfast through a program called Breakfast in the Classroom.
With the help of the Title One Initiative, Engelhard and other low income schools in the area are given enough funding to maintain a normal school day, the initiative also provides an aide and behavioral counselor to each classroom.
“I think (Title One and Breakfast in the Classroom) are great programs, and each year we see test scores go up, but more needs to be happening,” said Howe. “The legislators who pass these laws don’t spend time in our schools.”
Children in environments of economic trouble tend to be raised in households headed by a single guardian, which leads to less time and money available to spend on that child’s development and education.
“Home behavior and expectations filter into school,” said Howe, “The three or four students in my class who are from stable homes are all at grade level in each subject, are well-behaved, and learn faster than most of the other children.”
Children being raised in low income communities are far less likely to graduate and are at “higher risk” of becoming repeat criminal offenders by young adulthood, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
In the ten years since No Child Left Behind was enacted, the United States has made little progress bridging the achievement gap between children in high and low income families.
Currently, students from wealthier families score up to 40 percent higher on standardized tests than students from low income families. Similarly, students from affluent families are 50 percent more likely to finish college than those from low income households.
Kaye Lesslie, an academic learning skills (ALS) aid at Prairie Trail Elementary School in Lewisville, Texas, has been involved with the education system for 16 years. Prairie Trail is considered to be one of the middle to upper-class schools in the district.
“Affluent schools can focus on developing new programs for kids and teaching children life skills because parents are more involved and most students are secure economically,” said Lesslie.
Lesslie works primarily with the Special Education program at Prairie Trail where the program is given a yearly allowance in order to purchase items necessary to teach basic skills, such as how to cook and clean.
Prairie Trail does have programs designed to assist struggling families; however, because of the affluent nature of most of the student population, the programs aren’t heavily utilized. Free and reduced lunches are available to students, as well as the option to have school supplies paid for.
According to Lesslie, the PTA at Prairie Trail is very strong compared to other schools that she has worked for in the past.
However, Lesslie would like to see more from the community.
“Teachers deserve better pay and smaller class sizes,” said Lesslie. “We’re not only teachers, we’re psychologists, mothers, problem-solvers, and sometimes we have to teach parents how to parent.”
Cindy Calder, English teacher at Horizon High School in Thornton, Colo. agrees: “Kids need more differentiation. There are students with disabilities who aren’t receiving the education they deserve because there simply aren’t enough teachers and our class sizes are too big.”
Calder has been a teaching for 18 years and in that time has noticed that, “the further administration gets from the classroom, the less they know about what our schools need … lawmakers too. The School Board has [teachers] where they want us, because we care too much about our students to leave,” said Calder.
The U.S. Department of Education announced on September 25 that they will be awarding $21 million to fund 478 fellowship programs for colleges and universities in 32 states. The fellowships will be given to students who prove financial need and excel in their education.
While the price of higher education is of concern to many Americans, the future of many low-income students needs to be invested in very early on. Youth living in poverty are six times more likely to drop out of high school than students coming from wealthy homes.
“The economic status of my students is hard for me to determine,” said Calder. “By the time they get to high school, it’s easier for me to relate student success to whether or not the student has parents or a guardian that is invested and cares about their education.”
During the 1950s and 1960s, race was seen as the largest factor in determining educational success among youth. Today, much less variance is seen between youth of different races if they exist in same economic class.
A recent New York Times report found that wealthy families are “spending more time and money than ever” on their children’s education.
“As a teacher, you have to put all of your energy into every single kid,” said Kate Zender, a first year math teacher at Bonnie Lake High School in Bonnie Lake, Wash. “We stop getting paid at 3 p.m., but our work never stops. We’re constantly thinking and planning ways to reach the one ‘at risk’ kid in our class … trying to pick them up before they slip through the cracks.”